The Daily Princetonian sat down with two members of the Princeton University Figure Skating Club, Sophia Chen ’19 and Rachel Marek ’17, to learn about their backgrounds and experiences with skating on campus.
The Daily Princetonian: When did you start figure skating? What inspired you to learn?
Sophia Chen: I first got on the ice when I was four years old. The only reason I started was because my mom wanted to keep me busy when I was younger — I was a very energetic kid. In the winters there wasn’t as much to do in our neighborhood or our town, so she took me to a local ice rink and I started group lessons and it wasn’t supposed to progress much beyond that, but here I am today still skating.
Rachel Marek: I honestly don’t really remember what inspired me to learn. I think my mom just signed me up for classes when I was a lot younger, maybe around four. I guess what inspired me to keep going is that it was a sport that was very fun and I just had always been doing it and there’s always new challenges, so I guess that’s why I never stopped. There was always something else, something more.
DP: What is your involvement with figure skating at the University? To what extent has skating shaped your experience here?
SC: I’m currently captain of our synchronized skating team at Princeton. How the figure skating club works is there are four [executive] board members: there’s the president and the treasurer, and then there’s the two synchro captains. So I’m definitely very involved in terms of the ins and outs every day of the club and the team. A lot of my closest friends today at Princeton are my skating friends. They were the first people I met at Princeton Preview when I came as a high school senior, and showed me the ropes last year as a freshman.
Honestly it’s been really nice at Princeton because, growing up, I skated for Team USA throughout high school at the national and international levels, so it was very competitive for me and kind of consumed my entire life outside of school. But at Princeton, I really like how, first of all, it’s a school sport, so you’re very integrated with the school community and it’s a nice balance in terms of still getting to compete but also getting to meet a lot of cool people on this campus that maybe I wouldn’t have met otherwise.
RM: I definitely think [figure skating] has shaped my experience at the University. It was something I didn’t necessarily think I wanted to do, but I am very happy that I have, because it’s always been an outlet for me, whether it’s from academics or just being stressed. You can always just go to the rink and the couple of hours you’re at the rink, that’s the only thing that really matters, you’re just at the rink practicing. I’ve been involved since my freshman year. I’ve been on the synchronized skating team for all four years and I’ve been the co-captain for three of those four years ... so that’s been especially fun because you get to work on organizing things but also making sure everyone on the team is happy and having as much fun as you are, so that’s pretty important to me.
DP: There is an ongoing debate about whether figure skating is more performance art than sport, and vice versa. How do you classify figure skating?
SC: So in terms of that question whether it’s an art or a sport, I think figure skating is unique in that it does blend the two. However, I would say that at this highly competitive level that I’ve been training at, it’s most definitely more a sport. I think why figure skaters are so unique is that figure skating is an incredibly demanding sport physically. However, if you’re training at that high of a level and winning the competitions, like you’re a serious contender, the reason you are winning is because you are able to make your performance seem effortless and very graceful on the ice. Right, that’s what the judges and that’s what the audiences are looking for.
So if you turn on a TV nowadays and you watch the Olympics or Worlds that are going on, a lot of people, if they’re not very well versed in figure skating, will say ‘Wow, she looks like she’s floating on the ice. It looks so easy.’ But what a lot of people don’t know is that those people you see on TV, they’ve poured like 20-plus years of their life training everyday, multiple hours a day.
For example, beyond what we do on the ice, which if you’re training at that level could be like five to six hours a day, we also need to supplement it with off-ice training. And for a lot of people, that means going to the gym, lifting. You need to have arm strength, doing abs, you need to have core strength. Doing cardio, you need to be able to have the endurance to be able to skate for four-minute programs ... so in summary, I truly believe that it is most definitely a sport. And I can definitely feel it now that I’m not training as competitively anymore at Princeton in comparison to what I’ve done growing up.
RM: I feel like I would classify it definitely as a sport. And it’s a sport that is just also an art form .... It takes a lot of work to make all the things that people do on the ice look so easy. So I definitely think it’s probably a sport first.
DP: What does figure skating mean to you?
SC: You can ask anyone that knows me growing up or even at Princeton, like a lot of people, if they say Sophia Chen, everyone will assume it’s that figure skater. It’s kind of become part of my identity growing up. It’s always been that kind of ‘cool’ thing about me. Like what’s one thing about yourself that no one else knows, one of those icebreaker kind of things, it’s always that I’m a figure skater just because growing up in my town I was basically the only skater and so it was a very unique thing for me to do.
And besides being a unique thing for me, it’s also been my life growing up. A lot of my closest friends to this day are my friends that I’ve met skating with on the same team as them or training with them growing up. Beyond that, I think [I've taken a lot of] life lessons from skating, like the values of teamwork and persistence and dedication and perseverance and not being afraid of falling down, just getting right back up. And these kind of life lessons have transcended far beyond the rink for me, I think it’s really helped shape me into the person I am today in terms of being able to balance multiple things on my plate at the same time, time management, and just working with others. Frankly, the rink for me has always been my safe haven; if I’m stressed from school or whatever else is going on in my life, getting on the ice for me has always been a very freeing, liberating feeling for me.
RM: It means a lot to me. It’s something that is definitely a major part of my identity. It’s something that like ... when I meet people, I say, "Oh yeah, I’m a figure skater." So it really means a lot. Especially to have been doing it for so long and then to keep having the chance at Princeton to work on it and do it ... and to skate so easily, too. We have a rink on our campus, so it’s really nice that it’s all right at our fingertips.
DP: Tigers on Ice, the spring show for the figure skating club, is this Friday, April 14, at 7 p.m. What can audiences expect from the show?
SC: The synchro team is going to perform our number, like our program from this season, which we won Eastern Sectional Championships with this year, so that’s going to kick off the show. And then we have a lot of our skaters ... doing either solos or small group numbers of two, three, four ... and then we have one big group number with basically everyone in the club. Also the Footnotes ... are doing our halftime show.
How the figure skating club at Princeton works is that there is the overarching figure skating club, and then we have the synchronized skating team, which is like the competitive team that you have to try out for at the beginning of the year. And so the team has 12 girls and then there are general club members beyond that, people who are not on the synchro team. Some of them are competitive singles skaters or just more recreational skaters, but there’s about 25–30 people, I think, and about 18–20 are doing the show. So the show’s going to be a wide assortment of numbers. We try to make it very diverse so people aren’t just seeing solos and aren’t just seeing trios and stuff.
DP: What went into planning the show? What goals did you have as a team as to what you wanted to ultimately present?
SC: The show is very important to us for sure. Our fall semester is completely taken up by the synchro team, [which] trains like three times a week with our professional coach who we hire. And then that synchro season accumulates at the Eastern Sectional Championships, which usually takes place at the end of January, around intersession time. And so then, when we come back for spring semester, that’s when we start our show season. The show for us is kind of our big, once a year opportunity to showcase our skaters on campus ... We also did a holiday show this year, so we’re starting to have more shows, but previously we didn’t have regular shows like some of the dance groups do, for example. And so our goal every year is just to showcase to our family and friends on campus how much this sport means to us and how big of a presence, I guess, that the skating community really does have within Princeton and is rapidly growing every year, which is awesome .... Because we finish our competition season at intersession, like I said earlier, show season is definitely supposed to be more fun, a little bit more casual. We’re just putting on a performance ultimately but not necessarily competing for judges.
DP: What part of the show are you most excited about?
RM: I think I’m most excited for seeing what everyone’s final product will be. You know, I’ve watched a lot of the skaters practice and work really hard, so I’m really excited just to see what everything will be in the end. A lot of people have choreographed their own numbers; it’s run by all the members of the club. So it’s very exciting to see the final product in the end, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.